Those who unquestioningly support and promote vaccination while at the same time trivializing vaccine safety concerns have tried to co-opt science as their own private fiefdom.
But is that legitimate? And what is science, really? Is it some clear-cut, static system with hard results? Or is it an ongoing process, and one that depends on asking the right questions in the right way? Is the pro-vaccine camp right that only they understand and properly use science and its methods? Or do such notions suggest a lack of understanding about science, including its strengths and limitations, and/or a propaganda effort (e.g., by inserting the word “science” in the title of your blog) designed to camouflage the truth?
Among the varied definitions of science are the following:
There is no philosophical high-road in science, with epistemological signposts. No, we are in a jungle and find our way by trial and error, building our roads behind us as we proceed. We do not find sign posts at cross-roads, but our own scouts erect them, to help the rest.
Max Born (1882-1970), Nobel Prize-winning physicist,
quoted in Gerald Holton's Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought
Science consists simply of the formulation and testing of hypotheses based on observational evidence; experiments are important where applicable, but their function is merely to simplify observation by imposing controlled conditions.
Robert H. Dott, Jr., and Henry L. Batten, Evolution of the Earth (2nd edition)
Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation . . . As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.
Richard Feynman, Nobel-prize-winning physicist,
in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
as quoted in American Scientist v. 87, p. 462 (1999)
So what are the bases of the anti-vaccine-safety camp’s assertions?
First, their declarations of vaccine safety are almost entirely based on industry-funded or influenced “science”. For them, the indisputable potential for conflict of interest to result in compromised scientific research apparently has no relevance to vaccines. While the pro-vaccine camp has made a dogma out of trivializing vaccine-safety concerns, in fact, such tarnished “science” does not disprove evidence of vaccine harm. The unreservedly pro-vaccine camp’s willingness to embrace tainted research raises more questions than it answers.
Second, their claims are based on rejecting contrary evidence, including observations of temporally- related adverse vaccine events, even those that occur within minutes or hours. It is absurd to assume that a temporally-related event cannot be causally related. In fact, under normal circumstances, it would be the first thing suspected. But vaccines are not viewed in the “normal” way.
Of course a temporal relationship alone does not alone prove anything. For starters, little is ever “proved” in science. A temporally-related event should, however, be viewed as a red flag that warrants further serious, unbiased investigation. Instead, mention of such reported relationships are often viewed as reason to humiliate the person who has reported it, rather than attempt to understand its significance, as well as to end any further discussion. The once universally shamed, but later vindicated, Semmelweis might well be considered the poster boy for what is happening in the vaccine arena. Between the unenlightened, self-interested desire to defend one’s own work and the unenlightened, self-interested desire to avoid the potential financial and political liabilities that surround the vaccine issue, there is little incentive to seek the truth about vaccines. On the other hand, there is every reason to discredit those who question their safety.
It is simply wrong to suggest that anecdotal evidence, which is based on observation, i.e., a fundamental part of scientific research, is inherently useless information. It should be a starting point and nothing less.
Moreover, the debate is often mischaracterized as pitting science against parents. A case in point is the NRP Frontline program “The Vaccine War” which falsely made it seem there were no “experts” who understood or sympathized with vaccine safety concerns. In fact, Dr. Jay Gordon spent 2 hours with them, but they did not use any of his interview. They also left out the interview of Dr. Robert Sears. Viewers were thus left with the incorrect impression that there is no real science behind vaccine safety doubts.
Third, the “evidence” in support of vaccines relies on studies that have no genuine control (non-intervention) group. Non-intervention in the case of vaccines is no vaccines, period. In studies without a control group the only thing one can conclude is that the vaccinated have the same health outcomes as the vaccinated. One can only wonder about the reasons for such a striking omission.
In the absence of incidence data among the never-vaccinated, there is simply no basis for declaring that a reported adverse reaction is merely a normal, expected event. Normal, expected among the vaccinated? Yes. Normal, expected among the never-vaccinated? Who knows?
In addition, the self-righteous hue and cry over the alleged ethics of conducting such studies should be seen for what it is: 1) an attempt to divert attention from the fact that such critical studies were never done (where is the hue and cry from them over that?) and 2) to keep such studies from ever being conducted. While not perfect, retrospective studies, using those who have chosen not to vaccinate, would be far better than nothing. If it were discovered that the never-vaccinated are healthier than the vaccinated, for whatever reasons, that would be important and useful information. We could then set about trying to understand what it is about the never-vaccinated that leads to better health results, vaccines or not.
Fourth, there is the disgraceful rejection of nearly all the evidence published in journals that supports the notion that vaccines may be causing harm. This in spite of the high hurdle such studies must surmount, given heavy funding of the journals by vaccine manufacturers , difficulty getting non-industry funding, and conflicts of interest among many of the “peers” reviewing those studies. All of this makes it extremely difficult to get a fair hearing and published.
One stark example of the rejection of published studies that challenge so-called “expert” vaccine proclamations involves thimerosal as a possible cause of autism and/or other vaccine harm. The ultra pro-vaccine crowd wants us to believe the issue has been settled, even though science is almost never “settled”. And even though there are at least 90 journal articles that clearly suggest otherwise. (They also incorrectly insist that thimerosal has been completely removed from childhood vaccines, totally ignoring the fact that many of the flu vaccines now given to children contain it, while other vaccines contain “trace amounts”, and/or that whatever amount is still left is surely not a problem. But that is another story.)
Fifth, given that most funding comes from industry, few researchers who question vaccinations receive the necessary funding. Those who support vaccination and minimize vaccine risks would have us believe the consequent absence of evidence is evidence of absence. It is not.
Ignoring, dismissing and/or failing to properly study that which contradicts the status quo may be a great way to run a business, but it is no way to conduct science. The anti-vaccine-safety crowd has some nerve making the unscientific claim that the vaccine-safety issue has been settled. It is high time for the public to stop falling for such self-serving, deceptive pronouncements.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” – Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), paraphrasing John Philpot Curran.
Sandy Gottstein is Editor of Vaccination News.